Metropoetica: Poetry and urban space: women writing cities
by Ingmāra Balode, Julia Fiedorczuk, Sanna Karlström, Ana Pepelnik, Zoë Skoulding, Sigurbjörg Þrastardóttir, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
144 pages, Seren, £9.99
Metropoetica is the result of a collaborative experiment that began in 2009 between the poets Ingmāra Balode (Riga, Lativia), Julia Fiedorczuk (Warsaw, Poland), Sanna Karlström (Helsenki,Finland), Ana Pepelnik (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Zoë Skoulding (Bangor, Wales), Sigurbjörg Þrastardóttir (Reykjavik, Iceland), and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese (Krakow, Poland). Informed by the ideas of the Situationists and others, these seven poets set out to explore the links between walking and writing the contemporary city.
The book is not just concerned with experience of urban spaces, though; it is also an exploration ‘of the poem as a mode of living between and alongside different languages’ (Zoë Skoulding). Many of the poems here are written in the poets’ native tongues, with English translations appearing on the opposite page; some poems are multilingual. Besides the verse, the book includes a number of short essays by the poets explaining and reflecting on the nature of the project, as well as colour photographs taken on various walks and at street performances. There is also a website (www.metropoetica.org), and a series of short films to accompany the book can be found at here.
The book’s guiding idea is the Situationist dérive. This is Guy Debord’s definition of the term:
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.
As Zoë Skoulding points out in one of the essays, however, for the Situationists dérives were ‘a means of replacing art with a form of utopian lived experience,’ whereas the poets involved in this book experience the new globalized cities of Europe, ‘saturated with media and communication’, as ‘being already texts, open to further translation and interpretation’.
The book’s first poems are the results of the following instructions:
Explore a city you don’t know using an online map.
Choose a route for a walk.
Send it to a poet who lives there.
She follows your directions and writes a poem.
Perhaps inspired by Virginia Woolf’s claim that ‘street haunting in winter [is] the greatest of adventures’, or perhaps due to other considerations, the authors begin their walking-and-writing experiment in January. Early poems explore the effects of snow on the poets’ respective cities:
Suddenly the street empties.
That’s the effect snow has. Today
it’s falling down like curtains on a stage.
It brings its own peace and smooth
as butter everything dirty disappears.
(‘walk like’, Ana Pepelnik, trans. Ana Pepelnik and Zoë Skoulding)
A virtual walk
becomes more virtual as I turn
backwards and see
changing my screen into a nameless street
on someone’s unsigned postcard,
a few grey men falling
under a concrete flag.
(‘Victory’, Ingmāra Balode, trans. Ingmāra Balode and Zoë Skoulding)
One of the objectives of following someone else’s ‘virtual walk’, was to see (and write) one’s own city afresh. Such walks, however, were not always conducive (at least not initially) to the creation of poetry, as this prose passage by Sanna Karlström makes clear:
I was stressed and angry. I was trying to find a flat to rent and everything seemed to go wrong. I had my directions on a piece of paper, but I was not so sure if I could read my handwriting. […] I took the walk with Eino, who is also a poet. We were joking about this poetic walk, because I was so tense, swearing all the time, and far from being responsive. […] I said I’d rather kick the swan than write about it.
In the end the swan does make it, unharmed, into Karlström’s poem, and she does find a flat to rent.
Later in the book, poems start talking to each other. Towards the end of Ingmāra Balode’s poem about a café in Krakow, she writes:
someone’s scraping strings in the cafés
amazed you say look how it’s snowing
beyond the drawn-on window pane
And Zoë Skoulding’s poem on the next page begins:
the green tea sachet on the saucer
is proof that I’ve been to the café in your poem
the snow that fell in your poem
has turned to drizzle
and seeped through the stitching of my boots
The second major dérive of the book starts when the poets meet and set out on a walk together – its route dictated by the turning of cards. This physical coming together prefigures the writers becoming more textually collaborative too. There is a move from individual poems by individual authors to multi-authored works. For instance, ‘Poem for Wrocław’ is written by four poets (Fiedorczuk, Karlström, Skoulding, and Wójcik-Leese). Composed in quatrains, with each line a complete sentence, the poem closes:
Doubt shadows a pencil turning the corner.
A view of trams unfolds beyond the shaking birches.
Wind turbines caught in a single glance, a longing for cables and precision.
Transparency cuts the alley, a sliced box behind glass.
In this poem the boundaries of authorship, often so fiercely guarded, are collapsed. However, throughout the book one authorial distinction remains significant – that of gender. This is, as the subtitle makes clear, a book of ‘women writing cities’.
Rebecca Solnit notes in her Wanderlust: A History of Walking that from ancient Greece and ‘[t]hroughout much of the western world into the present, women have remained relatively housebound, not only by law in some countries even now, but by custom and fear in others’. As a consequence of this and other factors, ‘[w]omen,’ Zoë Skoulding writes, ‘have historically been invisible in the public space of cities’. This book can be read as a response and corrective to that historical absence.
In her essay ‘Urban bodies,’ included here, Julia Fiedorczuk writes:
Traditionally it has been men who have had the required leisure to become engaged in idle walking and it has been men who have held the symbolic authority of the makers of meaning which, in turn, enabled them to map and re-map space.
Fiedorczuk sees Metropoetica as an artistic endeavour driven by a rejection of woman as ‘a passive object, a thing, an appearance’. Instead, the walking and writing involved in this project recast woman, not as ‘an element of the landscape’, but as a ‘semiotic shepherdess’, ‘the maker of meaningful spaces’.
In its collaborative, multi-modal approach, Metropoetica is both ambitious and innovative. Through a combination of poems, essays, and images the authors have created an impressive work that is aesthetically interesting and politically engaged.